107 U.S. 519 (1883), District of Columbia v. Arms

Citation:107 U.S. 519, 2 S.Ct. 840, 27 L.Ed. 618
Party Name:DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. ARMS, Adm'r, etc. [*]
Case Date:May 07, 1883
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 519

107 U.S. 519 (1883)

2 S.Ct. 840, 27 L.Ed. 618



ARMS, Adm'r, etc. [*]

United States Supreme Court.

May 7, 1883


[2 S.Ct. 840] A. G. Riddle, for plaintiff in error.

S. Shellaberger, A. A. Birney, and C. H. Armes, for defendants in error.



This was an action to recover damages for injuries received by the plaintiff's intestate, Du Bose, from a fall caused by a defective sidewalk in the city of Washington. In 1873 the board of public works of the city caused the grade of the carriage-way of Thirteenth street, between F and G streets, to be lowered several feet. The distance between the curbstone of the carriage-way and the line of the adjacent building was 36 feet. At the time the accident to the deceased occurred, this portion of the street--sidewalk it may be termed, to designate it from the carriage-way, although only a part of it is given up to foot passengers--was, for 48 feet north of F street, [2 S.Ct. 841] lowered in its whole width to the same grade as the carriage-way. But, for some distance beyond that point, only 12

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feet of the sidewalk was cut down, thus leaving an abrupt descent of about 2 feet at a distance of 12 feet from the curb. At this decent--from the elevated to the lowered part of the sidewalk--there were 3 steps, but the place was not guarded either at its side or end. Nothing was placed to warn foot passengers of the danger.

On the night of February 21, 1877, Du Bose, a contract surgeon of the United States army, while walking down Thirteenth street, towards F street, fell down this descent, and, striking upon his knees, received a concussion which injured his spine and produced partial paralysis, resulting in the impairment of his mind and ultimately in his death, which occurred since the trial below. The present action was for the injury thus sustained. He was himself a witness, and it appeared from his testimony that his mind was feeble. His statement was not always as direct and clear as would be expected from a man in the full vigor of his mind. Still it was not incoherent, nor unintelligibel, but evinced a full knowledge of the matters in relation to which he was testifying. A physician of the government hospital for the insane, to which the deceased was taken two years afterwards, testified that he was affected with acute melancholy; that sometimes it was impossible to get a word from him; that his memory was impaired, but that he was able to make a substantially correct statement of facts which transpired before the injury took place, though, from the impairment of his memory, he might leave out some important part; that there would be some confusion of ideas in his mind; and that he should not be held responsible for any criminal act. A physician of the Freedmen's hospital, in which the deceased was at one time a patient after his injuries, testified to a more deranged condition of his mind, and that he was, when there in June, 1879, insane. He had attempted to commit suicide, and had stuck a fork into his neck several times. Upon this, and other testimony of similar import, and the feebleness exhibited by the deceased on the stand, the counsel for the city requested the court to withdraw his testimony from the jury, on the ground that his mental faculties were so far impaired as to render him incompetent to testify as a witness. This the

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court refused to do, but instructed the jury that his testimony must be taken with some allowance, considering his condition of mind and his incapacity to remember all the circumstances which might throw some light on his present condition. This refusal and ruling of the court constitute the first error assigned.

[2 S.Ct. 842] The ruling of the court and its instruction to the jury were entirely correct. It is undoubtedly true that a lunatic or insane person may, from the condition of his mind, not be a competent witness. His incompetency on that ground, like incompetency for any other cause, must be passed upon by the court, and to aid its judgment evidence of his condition is admissible. But lunacy or insanity assumes so many forms, and is so often partial in its extent, being frequently confined to particular subjects, while there is full intelligence on others, that the power of the court is to be exercised with the greatest caution. The books are full of cases where persons showing mental derangement on some subjects evince a high degree of intelligence and wisdom on others. The existence of partial insanity does not unfit individuals so affected for the transaction of business on all subjects, nor from giving a perfectly accurate and lucid statement of what they have seen or heard. In a case in the prerogative court of Canterbury, counsel stated that partial insanity was unknown to the law of England; but the court replied that if by this was meant that the law never deems a person both sane and insane at one and the same time, upon one and the same subject, the assertion was a truism; and added: 'If, by that position, it be meant and intended that the law of England never deems a party both sane and insane at different times upon the same subject, and both sane and insane at the same time upon different subjects, there can scarcely be a position more destitute of legal foundation; or, rather, there can scarcely be one more adverse to the stream and current of legal authority.' Dew v. Clark, 3 Add. Ecc. 79, 94.

The general rule, therefore, is that a lunatic or a person affected with insanity is admissible as a witness if he have sufficient understanding to apprehend to apprehend the obligation of an oath,

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and to be capable of giving a correct account of the matters which he has seen or heard in...

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